After an underwhelming introduction more than 20 years ago, virtual reality is giving it another go
photo: Sergey Galyonkin – cc
I remember the nineties well. Not fondly, necessarily, though I do think the toys were better. Between flashes of Posh Spice and Are You Afraid of the Dark, one memory that readily comes to mind were the lines of people at the mall waiting anxiously for their turn to try out a clunky, goofy-looking virtual reality headset. As I watched them play a crude, boring-looking game involving a laser gun, checkered flooring, and random neon polygons, I remember thinking even then that I’d much rather be home playing Sonic the Hedgehog on my 16-bit Sega Genesis. The next two decades appear to have shared my sentiments, but that awkward “this is new so it’s cool!” phase ultimately led to what we’re being shown again today. Virtual Reality in 2015, thankfully, is not the virtual reality I remember.
Virtual Reality in the Early 90s
Prior to widespread “meh,” the work of virtual reality pioneers like Jaron Lanier, Tom Zimmerman, and Mark Bolas successfully showed the public that, indeed, an alternative way of 3D perception was very possible. Gradually, word of mouth began to spread about the potential of this new technology, and the collective US imagination began to wander. As the hype train took off, its presence began to permeate into the mainstream through movies like Total Recall, The Lawnmower Man, and eventually the box-office hit The Matrix. The concept of virtual worlds even spilled into television with shows like The X-Files and Star Trek.
Despite the early buzz, however, it became clear that “VR” just wasn’t ready for gaming. With the novelty worn off, the mid-nineties decided it had more or less seen enough “proof-of-concept” technology being showcased as consumer ready. Almost overnight, we gathered our things and moved on to the next big thing – the internet.
As many VR technology companies went bankrupt, others managed to stay afloat by keeping off the consumer radars and instead focusing on 3D construction modeling as well as virtual training applications for the military. It was the latter that would lead to a surge in virtual reality development during the early 2000s as US involvement in the Middle East spiked.
Virtual Reality in 2015
Throughout the 2000s, virtual reality gaming technology was still sheepishly behind the capabilities of even a mid-level standard monitor and tower PC. In 2012, however, a young VR enthusiast named Palmer Luckey had grown bored with “cutting edge” VR technology and unveiled a VR headset of his own he called the Oculus Rift. Though very much a startup at the time, Luckey’s company was one of, if not the first, to take another swing at what so many had failed to accomplish two decades before.
The Oculus Rift
With Plans to hit the consumer market in the first quarter of 2016, the Oculus Rift is currently on its 2nd iteration (called dev kit 2) and is only available as a beta model through the Oculus site.
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While the first development kit had poor screen resolution as well as a slight lag issue (yes, I tried it), the newest version is said to have made vast improvements in resolution, sound, and frame-rate.
Though many laud the startup for its risk-taking, innovation, and self-propagation via kickstarter, many were upset to see the independent VR company bought by Facebook in 2014. While the thought of Oculus being scooped up by a social-media mogul like Mark Zuckerburg may be a turn off for some, Luckey has given a surprisingly reasonable explanation for his decision when asked why he chose Facebook over larger technology companies like Google and Microsoft. In an interview with The Verge, he stated:
“…to be honest, we’re not looking for a partner who knows hardware, because we have an incredible hardware team. We didn’t want to be bought by somebody who was going to shred us apart and make us part of their product line.”
With less hardware “experts” above them, Oculus is in an ideal position to avoid the shackles responsible for the demise of so many companies too often crippled by “a few suggestions for the product.”
Sony’s Project Morpheus
While the Oculus Rift is looking promising, they face plenty of competition from hardware veteran Sony and their answer to the Rift, Project Morpheus.
With a release date planned sometime during the first half of 2016, Sony’s VR headset boasts a 1920 x 1080px OLED display (960 x 1080px per eye), a frame-rate of 120 fps, and an uncharacteristically sleek hardware rig.
First Announced last year by Sony Worldwide Studios president, Shuhei Yoshida, Project Morpheus is intent on avoiding the mistakes made by VR companies during the nineties. Prioritizing a product that’s fun over a product that merely incites curiosity, Yoshida has shared his philosophy when it comes to virtual reality development:
“People don’t buy hardware just to have hardware. It needs strong content. Every developer who has started working on VR learns that they have to relearn what they have learned over the years making games. A lot of tech and new assets can be used again, but the approach has to be pretty different.”
interview via The Verge
With serious financial backing, impressive-looking gameplay, and a firm development philosophy, it would seem that Sony has all the right moves to carry out a successful 2nd wave of VR gaming upon the consumer masses. With other contenders such as Steam, Samsung, and a handful of crowd-funded startups at their heels, however, Sony may be on the cusp of a whole new type of console war.
What Happens Next?
In today’s fast-paced, awe-seeking tech age, we see plenty of “this could work” models but few “this is working perfectly” models. Twenty years ago, many were wrong to the point of embarrassment regarding the appeal and impact virtual reality would have on the average consumer. This time around may be no different. One thing we have now, however, is the understanding that being a novelty in its own right is not enough to make a concept flourish. Are we still in an era of widespread proof-of-concepts? Hard to say. But I will say that virtual reality in 2015 is increasingly looking more like a final step than merely the next step in successful VR technology.